May 23, 2024 The Best Source of News, Culture, Lifestyle for Culver City, Mar Vista, Del Rey, Palms and West Los Angeles

Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers” Serves Up Sensual Tennis Drama Like You’ve Never Seen Before

Zendaya Leads in a Steamy Portrayal of Love, Ambition, and Competition

By Dolores Quintana

Challengers is an intense and propulsive film set in the world of professional tennis players with complex romantic relationships. It is the story of top-level game players playing so many games with each other’s hearts and minds. The style of the film is stunning, and the cinematography envelops you in the world of the sport. It shows rather than tells you how powerful the emotions of the characters are, and the same is true of the tennis matches. Luca Guadagnino is a remarkable filmmaker and artist. There’s no one else quite like him in film. 

The film opens today, and you can get your tickets here

The film’s synopsis says of the film from visionary filmmaker Luca Guadagnino; Challengers stars Zendaya as Tashi Duncan, a former tennis prodigy turned coach and a force of nature who makes no apologies for her game on and off the court. Married to a champion on a losing streak (Mike Faist – West Side Story), Tashi’s strategy for her husband’s redemption takes a surprising turn when he must face off against the washed-up Patrick (Josh O’Connor – The Crown) – his former best friend and Tashi’s former boyfriend. As their pasts and presents collide and tensions run high, Tashi must ask herself what it will cost to win.

Luca Guadagnino’s last film was the unjustly misunderstood horror triumph Bones and All, from 2022, and I am still somewhat angry that people did not realize the film’s brilliance. Challengers, as directed by Guadagnino, has done what I thought was impossible; it makes a film that centers on tennis interesting, visually and emotionally. While you are most likely very aware of Zendaya and her talent, the other two leads, Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor, are equally as interesting and make the film a complex examination of the mysteries of love. The sexuality and erotic tension in the film, the romance and beauty of the film, are a feast for the senses. 

I am not a fan of sports films, but Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s cinematography and Guadagnino’s direction rendered the film a sensual delight and a powerful portrait of the pure physicality of tennis. As the players hit the ball, in different scenes, it seems like you are on the court with the players. Not sure how that was achieved; but the audience flies with the ball and goes over the heads of the players, which is much more involving for the audience.

In many tennis films, you might see a shot of someone serving or returning the ball, but normally, you get a distant two-shot of the person hitting the ball over the net with a not-very-believable stroke. Not the case with Challengers; you feel the sweat and see it as it drips off their faces. You feel their frustration, especially when Tashi lets out a scream. 

Zendaya stars as Tashi and Josh O’Connor as Patrick in director Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS An Amazon MGM Studios film Photo credit: Niko Tavernise © 2024 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I don’t know if you have watched many tennis films, but many of them have disappointing play. In Challengers, the actors, who are not professional players, have tennis doubles, but each serve and stroke has power that you can feel and hear. You can also feel the physical danger that the sport puts them in. 

Zendaya plays Tashi as a controlled and controlling woman with a highly vulnerable core. You can feel the tenderness inside of her, but her Tashi can never show that vulnerability, lest she be seen as weak. It is such a strong performance. Mike Faist as Art Donaldson is a seemingly casual and easy-going man who leans on his wife and best friend, but one who is not above manipulating the people he loves. Josh O’Connor, as Patrick Zweig, plays a louche but appealing lost boy who refuses to accept that he has lost his golden boy status and punishes himself to attain greatness by cosplaying as a poverty-stricken low-level pro. The cast is a grand slam. 

There is definitely more than a whiff of bisexuality to Patrick, and the scene where Tashi tricks the two young men into kissing passionately shows that there is something between them that one of the two might never want to admit. 

The opening shot is one of the most dramatic in sports films about tennis, coming from across the court straight to Tashi’s face. The narrative is fractured in a way that makes perfect sense since the story unfolds not by linear time but through a timeline that makes more sense. Written by Justin Kuritzkes, the script is a marvel of giving the audience just enough of the story as they need, but more than enough of the characters’ inner selves and psychology as the film advances. Masterfully done, with great plotting. 

The film’s score, by the duo of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who have won an Academy Award and also scored Bones and All, is less discordant and has more of a driven dance beat to the music cues with the occasional piano-based melancholy that is reminiscent of Reznor’s band Nine Inch Nails. 

The score serves to amp up the excitement of scenes, especially during gameplay, and it seems that the music cues, particularly in the tennis scenes, are louder than normal. Challengers has that in common with Alex Garland’s Civil War, a film that intentionally made the gunshots louder than normal to affect the audience. The score is both memorable and eminently suitable to the material and the director’s intentions. 

Challengers throws down a challenge to the audience. How much sensation can you take in a film that is nominally a romantic drama about tennis players? Sweaty, sensual, and sexy, Challengers drips with anger and frustration for a future denied; Challengers amps up the electricity where other films are much more placid and demands more, more, more. Are you ready?

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